by Peter Mertz
DENVER, the United States, Sept. 7 (Xinhua) -- John Yee was 20 when he first met Claire Lee Chennault, the leader of the "Flying Tigers," which helped China stop the Japanese from bombing the country during World War II.
In a recent interview with Xinhua at his home near Denver, Colorado, Yee, 94, who served as a translator for Chennault in Kunming in China's southwest, recalled his days with Chennault.
Chennault's troops used to call him "Old Leather Face" because his wrinkled face showed signs of wear, tear, determination, and perseverance, said Yee, who was raised by missionary parents in China's Yunnan province in the 1920s and 1930s.
The American pilots were personally recruited by Chennault under secret orders from then U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to stop the Japanese, months before Pearl Harbor.
In just a few weeks, Chennault got more than 100 "good" pilots to fly the P-40 planes earmarked for the China campaign.
They were named American Volunteer Group (AVG). "The pilots and support team were put on a ship and sent to Burma. Chennault was waiting, and the training began," Yee said.
Chennault's intelligence and technique are what made the AVG successful and famous. "He followed a saying and philosophy coined by the famous Chinese General Sun Tzu," Yee said. "Know yourself and know your enemy...100 wars, 100 victories."
He studied his P-40 planes and then he studied the Japanese Zero planes.
"They were pilots, but they hadn't flown the P-40s," Yee said, therefore, they were trained in Burma for a few months and got valuable experience for the ensuing China operations.
On their many raids of Rangoon, the Japanese came with heavy forces of bombers and fighter escorts. The AVG was always outnumbered, sometimes as much as 5-to-1, but always seemed to prevail.
They arrived on Dec. 21, 1941 at Kunming's only airport, called Wu Jia Ba, Yee said.
Just a few days before the P-40s arrived, the Japanese had bombed and devastated Kunming.
"That would not happen again," Yee said. "The Americans were here."
The day after the AVG arrival, the Japanese came again to bomb Kunming. This sortie was small -- 10 bombers from Hanoi with no escort. They knew Kunming's anti-aircraft guns were useless, but they didn't know the Americans were waiting.
"Chennault got the information -- the enemy was on its way -- and he sent his squadron of eight aloft with 30 minutes to spare. The planes climbed rapidly and circled high above at about 15,000 feet, with all eyes glued to the southern horizon, eight men with their thumbs hovering over the radio button, looking for that speck in the sky, ready to sound the final alarm," Yee said.
"Bogeys...11:30...bogeys, 11:30...!" came the excited voice, crackling over the air like the short bursts of the big submachine guns that would soon be ripping 70 caliber rounds at the Japanese planes.
"The Japanese had no idea. For months they'd dropped thousands of bombs on defenseless Chinese people. It was a turkey shoot, a duck hunt. They just blasted away," Yee said.
Yee remembered well the day the tide turned.
"It was my day off, and I happened to be in town that day. It was a bright, sunny day, and many flowers were blooming in China's Spring City (Kunming)," Yee said.
"From high above, I saw a P-40 dive straight down out of the sky, its guns blazing, and suddenly a bomber started smoking and spiraled downward, the first Japanese losses over the skies of my home town," he said.
"Smoke filled the air, the sound of gunfire, and excited Chinese civilians yelling from the ground, who were watching. The Japanese were completely surprised and the Americans routed them," Yee said.
The rest of the Japanese sortie turned around and hurried back to Vietnam, Yee recalled. But in this fight, the P-40s turned into pursuers, chased and eliminated them all, except one who managed to limp back to Hanoi, Yee said.
The record of the Flying Tigers was 9-0 against the enemy that day.
The Kunming Daily News reported the new American-Chinese band had shot down a total of nine bombers. The newspaper was ebullient; the Chinese were delirious. All day, Kunming was full of excited talk and bustling, hopeful people, he said.
Yee also revealed the secret to Chennault's success. "The secret was Chennault co-opting modern warfare tactics with Chinese old school wisdom," Yee said.